After summer war, identity crisis grips Abkhazia

The war with Georgia may help make the breakaway province more independent.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz
Freedom? A boy waves an Abkhazian flag at the republic's first independence celebration since Russia's recognition.

Abkhazia is in the midst of an identity crisis.

While the tiny Black Sea republic, recognized only by Russia and Nicaragua, has defiantly proclaimed its independence from Georgia for 15 years, it's having trouble letting go of its ties to Russia.

Billboards in the capital city, Sukhumi, proclaim: "Independence, freedom, and peace," but only under juxtaposed images of Russian and Abkhazian flags and the two countries' presidents. Stores are stocked with Russian goods, and every summer Abkhazia's pristine coast is flooded with Russian tourists.

Despite its fierce nationalism, Abkhazia remains dependent on Russia for its economic stability and security, making it difficult for the country to forge new diplomatic relationships.

Following the August war in which Abkhazia sided with Russia against Georgia, Abkhazians still recognize the need for Russian protection, however, many now hope to broaden their economic partnerships beyond the former communist Goliath.

"What we need is investment," says Beslan Boutba, leader of the Party of Economic Development of the Republic of Abkhazia. Until more countries recognize Abkhazia's independence, he says, Russia will continue to indirectly influence the country by providing the only much-needed investment for the region.

In September, Russia signed a friendship treaty with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that will increase Russian presence in the territories, both militarily and economically. For Abkhazia, this means first and foremost that their security is guaranteed against the threat of Georgian aggression that has kept the population on edge for 15 years.

"Now, for the first time in our history we have a guarantee of our security," says Abkhazian Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba.

With Georgia's threat apparently neutralized, Mr. Shamba says that Abkhazia's next concern is economic development.

For years Russia has been Abkhazia's main trading partner, providing tourists for its beaches and markets for its rich mandarin oranges and harvests of hazelnuts. Although this activity has kept the nation afloat, it hasn't been enough to create stable, independent economy.

Additionally, Russian businesses in the breakaway province are provided with the same rights as Abkhazians. As Russia often tends to be an unscrupulous business partner, Boutba says that leaving "the doors wide open to Russia is a danger to Abkhazian businesses."

There has also been much concern as Russians snap up large quantities of real estate along the Abkhazian coast. Many seaside homes were abandoned by G eorgians fleeing ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s during Abkhazia's bloody war of secession from Georgia.

More than a decade later, in the coastal city of Ochamchira many locals complains that Russians have seized upon this misfortune as a real estate opportunity. According to locals, Russians have purchased some homes for prices up to $100,000.

In Abkhazia, where the average annual income for urbanites and prosperous rural residents ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 a year, Russian buyers have the potential to artificially inflate the market beyond what most locals can afford.

Additionally, following the ethnic persecution, locals in Ochamchira say the derelict homes carry too much of a stigma for them to purchase.

"We are ashamed to buy our neighbors' houses," says Roland Shevardshidze, an unemployed resident of Ochamchira.

In spite of Russia's pervasive presence in Abkhazia, most locals say Russia's acknowledgement of their independence following the August war serves as a protection against annexation.

"If we weren't independent, we'd be afraid. [But] Russia recognized our independence, and now we talk as equal partners," says Omar Trapsh, an Abkhazian businessman.

Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia has said he hopes that other European countries will recognize Abkhazia to help prevent Russia from absorbing the republic.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, the minister of reintegration, Temur Iakobashvili, stated that only Georgians can effectively protect Abkhazia from Russian domination, as provisions for their cultural and political autonomy are guaranteed in Georgia's proposed peace plan.

This proposal, however, falls on deaf ears in Abkhazia, where residents seek only to distance themselves from Georgia.

It will take years before Abkhazia and Georgia develop normal relations, says Abkhazian cafe owner Alexi Pogosian. "This nation will never forgive the deaths of their fathers and sons," he says.

As for independence, Mr. Pogosian takes a more pragmatic view. "In reality people have to survive, and the more money people have in the pocket, the more independent they will be," he says. "So if Russia buys up Abkhazia, so what?"

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